GoFundMe Is a Health-Care Utility Now

Resorting to crowdfunding to pay medical bills has become so routine, in some cases health professionals recommend it.

GoFundMe started as a crowdfunding site for underwriting “ideas and dreams,” and, as GoFundMe’s co-founders, Andrew Ballester and Brad Damphousse, once put it, “for life’s important moments.” In the early years, it funded honeymoon trips, graduation gifts, and church missions to overseas hospitals in need. Now GoFundMe has become a go-to for patients trying to escape medical-billing nightmares.

One study found that, in 2020, the number of U.S. campaigns related to medical causes—about 200,000—was 25 times higher than the number of such campaigns on the site in 2011. More than 500 campaigns are currently dedicated to asking for financial help for treating people, mostly kids, with spinal muscular atrophy, a neurodegenerative genetic condition. The recently approved gene therapy for young children with the condition, by the drugmaker Novartis, costs about $2.1 million for the single-dose treatment.

Perhaps the most damning aspect of all this is that paying for expensive care with crowdfunding is no longer seen as unusual; instead, it is being normalized as part of the health system, like getting blood work done or waiting on hold for an appointment. Need a heart transplant? Start a GoFundMe in order to get on the waiting list. Resorting to GoFundMe when faced with bills has become so accepted that in some cases, patient advocates and hospital financial-aid officers recommend crowdfunding as an alternative to being sent to collections. My inbox and the Bill of the Month project (run by KFF Health News, where I am the senior contributing editor, and NPR) have become a kind of complaint desk for people who can’t afford their medical bills, and I’m gobsmacked every time a patient tells me they’ve been advised that GoFundMe is their best option.

GoFundMe itself acknowledges the reliance of patients on the company’s platform. Ari Romio, a spokesperson for the company, said that “medical expenses” is the most common category of fundraiser it hosts. But she declined to say what proportion of campaigns are medically related, because people starting a campaign self-select the purpose of the fundraiser. They might choose the family or travel category, she said, if a child needs to go to a different state for treatment, for example. So although the company has estimated in the past that a third of the funds raised on the site are medical-related, that could be an undercount.

Andrea Coy of Fort Collins, Colorado, turned to GoFundMe in 2021 as a last resort after an air-ambulance bill tipped her family’s finances over the edge. Her son Sebastian, then a year old, had been admitted with pneumonia to a local hospital and then transferred urgently by helicopter to Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver when his oxygen levels dropped. REACH, the air-ambulance transport company that contracted with the hospital, was out-of-network, and billed the family nearly $65,000 for the ride—more than $28,000 of which Coy’s insurer, UnitedHealthcare, paid. Even so, REACH continued sending Coy’s family bills for the remaining balance, and later began regularly calling Coy to try to collect, enough that she felt the company was harassing her, she told me.

Coy made multiple calls to her company’s human-resources department, REACH, and UnitedHealthcare for help in resolving the case. She applied to various patient groups for financial assistance and was rejected again and again. Eventually, she got the outstanding balance knocked down to $5,000, but even that was more than she could afford on top of the $12,000 the family owed out-of-pocket for Sebastian’s actual treatment.

That’s when a hospital financial-aid officer suggested she try GoFundMe. But, as Coy said, “I’m not an influencer or anything like that,” so the appeal “offered only a bit of temporary relief—we’ve hit a wall.” They have gone deep into debt and hope to climb out of it.

In many respects, research shows, GoFundMe tends to perpetuate socioeconomic disparities that already affect medical bills and debt. If you are famous or part of a circle of friends who have money, your crowdfunding campaign is much more likely to succeed than if you are middle-class or poor. When the family of the former Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton started a fundraiser on another platform, *spotfund, for her recent ICU stay at a time when she was uninsured, nearly $460,000 in donations quickly poured in. (Although Retton said she could not get affordable insurance because of her preexisting condition—dozens of orthopedic surgeries—the Affordable Care Act prohibits insurers from refusing to cover people because of their prior medical histories, or charging them abnormally high rates.)

And given the price of American health care, even the most robust fundraising can feel inadequate. If you’re looking for help to pay for a $2 million drug, even tens of thousands is a drop in the bucket.

Rob Solomon, the CEO of the platform from 2015 to March 2020, who was named one of Time magazine’s 50 most influential people in health care, has said that he “would love nothing more than for ‘medical’ to not be a category on GoFundMe.” He told KFF Health News that “the system is terrible. It needs to be rethought and retooled. Politicians are failing us. Health-care companies are failing us. Those are realities.”

But despite the noble ambitions of its original vision, GoFundMe is a privately held for-profit company. In 2015, the founders sold a majority stake to a venture-capital investor group led by Accel Partners and Technology Crossover Ventures. And when I asked about medical bills being the most common reason for GoFundMe campaigns, the company’s current CEO, Tim Cadogan, sounded less critical than his predecessor of the health system, whose high prices and financial cruelty have arguably made his company famous.

“Our mission is to help people help each other,” he said. “We are not, and cannot, be the solution to complex, systemic problems that are best solved with meaningful public policy.”

And that’s true. Despite the site’s hopeful vibe, most campaigns generate only a small fraction of the money owed. Almost all of the medical-expense campaigns in the U.S. fell short of their goal, and some raised little or no money, a 2017 study from the University of Washington found. The average campaign made it to just about 40 percent of the target amount, and there is evidence that yields—measured as a percent of their target—have gotten worse over time.

Carol Justice, a recently retired civil servant and a longtime union member in Portland, Oregon, turned to GoFundMe after she faced a mammoth unexpected bill for bariatric surgery at Oregon Health & Science University.

She had expected to pay about $1,000, the amount left in her deductible, after her health insurer paid the $15,000 cap on the surgery. She didn’t understand that a cap meant she would have to pay the difference if the hospital, which was in-network, charged more.

And it did, leaving her with a bill of $18,000, to be paid all at once or in monthly $1,400 increments. “That’s more than my mortgage,” she told me. “I was facing filing for bankruptcy or losing my car and my house.” She made numerous calls to the hospital’s financial-aid office, many unanswered, and received only unfulfilled promises that “we’ll get back to you” about whether she qualified for help.

So, Justice said, her health coach—provided by the city of Portland—suggested starting a GoFundMe. The campaign yielded about $1,400, just one monthly payment, including $200 from the health coach and $100 from an aunt. She dutifully sent each donation directly to the hospital.

In an emailed response, the hospital system said that it couldn’t discuss individual cases, but that “financial assistance information is readily available for patients, and can be accessed at any point in a patient’s journey with OHSU. Starting in early 2019, OHSU worked to remove barriers for patients most in need by providing a quick screening for financial assistance that, if a certain threshold is met, awards financial assistance without requiring an application process.”

This particular tale has a happy-ish ending. In desperation, Justice went to the hospital and planted herself in the financial-aid office, where she had a tearful meeting with a hospital representative who determined that—given her finances—she wouldn’t have to pay the bill.

“I’d been through the gamut and just cried,” she said. She told me that she would like to repay the people who donated to her GoFundMe. But so far, the hospital won’t give the $1,400 back.

Elisabeth Rosenthal is the senior contributing editor at KFF Health News. A former senior writer at The New York Times, she is the author of An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back. She practiced as an ER doctor, before converting to journalism.


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